U.S. State Department Unfairly Criticizes Cuban Religious Freedom

The State Department’s recent 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom, while not characterizing Cuba as a Country of Particular Interest or placing it on the Special Watch List, for the worst violators of religious freedom, nonetheless did have harsh words for the island.[1]

Cuban Religious Demography

Keep in mind that although “there is no independent, authoritative source on the overall size or composition of [Cuban] religious groups,” the report uses the following estimates of the sizes of different religious groups:

Category Denominations/Groups Number
Christian Roman Catholic (lower estimate, 6,660,0000) 7,700,000
Protestant:
Assemblies of God    150,000
Baptists    100,000
Jehovah’s’ Witnesses      96,000
Methodists      50,000
Seventh-day Adventists      35,000
Presbyterians      25,000
Anglicans      22,500
Episcopalians        6,000
Apostolic Movement        4,000
Quakers        1,000
Moravians           750
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints           150
Other        8,250
Protestant Subtotal    555,000
Christianity Subtotal 8,255,000
Jewish         1,200
Muslims         3,000
Non-religious  2,840,800
TOTAL 11,096,000

In addition, the Report said, “Many individuals, particularly those of African descent, practice religions with roots in West Africa and the Congo River Basisn, known collectively as Santaria. These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism, and some require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate their total membership.”

The large numbers of different religious groups and of their estimated memberships, in and of themselves, tend to show religious freedom.

U.S. Report’s Executive Summary

“The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion; however, the Cuban Communist Party, through its Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) and the government’s Ministry of Justice (MOJ), continued to control most aspects of religious life.  Observers said the government continued to use threats, international and domestic travel restrictions, detentions, and violence against some religious leaders and their followers, and restricted the rights of prisoners to practice religion freely.  Media and religious leaders said the government continued to harass or detain members of religious groups advocating for greater religious and political freedom. . . . [The Communist Party’s  Office of Religious Affairs and the Ministry of Justice] continued to use the law on associations to deny official registration to certain religious groups, such as a number of Apostolic churches, or failed to respond to long-pending applications, such as those for the Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.. . . Human rights advocacy organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported government harassment of religious leaders increased “significantly in parallel with” the churches’ outspokenness regarding the draft constitution.  According to CSW, some religious groups said the government increased its scrutiny of foreign religious workers’ visa applications and visits.  Some religious groups reported an increase in the ability of their members to conduct charitable and educational projects.  According to the religious advocacy group EchoCuba and CSW, the government gave preference to some religious groups and discriminated against others.”

 U.S. Report’s Methodology

This report purportedly adheres to the Department’s ’guiding principle’ of trying “to ensure that all relevant information is presented as objectively, thoroughly, and fairly as possible” and not attempting “to verify independently all information contained in the reports.” (Emphasis added.) But each of  its various paragraphs invariably start with the allegations of violations of this freedom followed by contradictory information. This structure thereby implicitly and improperly gives greater credence to the allegations.[2]

Another legitimate criticism of this country report is its failure to consider the island’s relatively poor economic circumstances, especially with the implosion of Venezuela, which has been the island’s principal ally and financial backer, and the report’s implicitly using as its gauge of propriety the status of churches in the prosperous U.S.

The report on Cuba also fails to acknowledge that the U.S. has had and continues to have various surreptitious programs seeking to undermine the Cuban government, which, therefore, has reasonable grounds to be suspicious of some supposedly religious ventures from the U.S.

Sources of Information

Moreover, most of the adverse allegations come from only two sources: Christianity Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) with headquarters in London and EchoCuba based in Miami, Florida without setting forth any analysis of the credibility of those organizations.

CSW’s website says its “vision is a world free from religious persecution, where everyone can practice a religion or belief of their choice” and that it has a “team of specialist advocates [who] work on over 20 countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, to ensure that the right to freedom of religion or belief is upheld and protected.” https://www.csw.org.uk/about.htm Another page of the website describes various religious events on the island.

CSW was started in 1977 by Merwyn Thomas, who might have been a Roman Catholic priest and math teacher at Holy Cross College at Notre Dame, Indiana.[3]

EchoCuba, which was founded in 1994 or 1995 and is based in Miami, Florida says that it is “dedicated to strengthening the Cuban church and helping coordinate mission and social efforts from the United States in Cuba. It began as an organization dedicated to supporting the growth of the independent Christian church in Cuba in 1994, by supplying them with medical and humanitarian assistance.” But very little information about the group was uncovered on its own website or through Internet research.

On the other hand, the U.S. report only made the following reference to the Cuban Council of Churches (CIC): “Embassy officials met with the head of the Council of Cuban Churches, a government-registered organization with close ties to the government composed mostly of Protestant groups and associated with the World Council of Churches, to discuss its operations and programs.” (Exec. Summary.)

This, in this blogger’s judgment, is a major flaw in the U.S. report as the CIC was founded in 1941 and describes itself as “an ecumenical fellowship of churches and other Cuban Christian institutions, which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior, in accordance with the Scriptures and seek to realize their common vocation for the Glory of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The CIC promotes spaces for encounter, celebration, reflection, formation and joint actions of the churches and other Christian institutions, for the service to our people, as a visible expression of the ecumenism to which we are called by God in Jesus Christ.” Today the CIC’s membership includes 28 denominations, 10 fraternal associations and 14 ecumenical movements and centers.[4]

Relevant here is the subsequent statement (on or about July 17, 2019) by the CIC in response to the recent announced intent to create the Evangelical Alliance of Cuban Churches by the Cuban evangelical churches that are not members of the CIC:[5]

We want to reiterate to our people and their churches that the . . . [CIC], as it affirms in its Constitution, works under its motto “United to Serve “which states:

  • “We are a fellowship of churches, ecumenical movements and other Christian institutions that confess the Lord Jesus Christ as Son of God and Savior, according to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and seek to realize their common vocation, the glory of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. “
  • “Our mission is to provide spaces for meeting, celebration, reflection and formation of churches, ecumenical movements and other Christian institutions, as a visible expression of the unity to which God calls us in Jesus Christ, in the service of our people.”
  • “Encouraging the study, consultation and different areas of service in accordance with its purposes and functions; the cooperation of Christians in order to strengthen fraternal relations; enrich Christian life and witness; develop a sense of social responsibility and encourage participation in tasks of common interest for the evangelizing mission of the Church. “
  • “The Council, without authority over its members to determine issues of doctrine, government or worship, could be a mediating instance, provided that peace and goodness of the Body of Christ is sought, based on the best testimony to the world: the unity of the believers. “

“Therefore, it is not for the [CIC], to rule on doctrinal issues that have been put on the public stage, nor to represent on this or any other issue, before the Cuban people and its authorities, the churches and organizations , members or not.”

“In Cuba all denominations enjoy religious freedom and are equal before the law, therefore each church or religious organization establishes the relations it deems with the authorities, and gives testimony before them and the Cuban people as understood from their understanding of the Faith.” (Emphasis added.)

“The Council of Churches, in adherence to the values ​​that its Constitution proclaims and in its vocation of service, has carried out mediating efforts since its foundation. And it has done so by sovereign decision of its members, from its governing bodies, without supplanting it, any rights of others.”

“On the contrary, in most cases, these efforts have benefited not only the churches and member organizations of the CIC, and in some, all the religious denominations and their practitioners on the island. Suffice it to mention the import and distribution of Bibles, and in the early 90s, their decisive contribution in the cessation of all forms of religious discrimination in Cuba.”

“God calls for unity in Christ our Lord, to serve and bear witness to the Gospel. Since its foundation 78 years ago, the . . . [CIC] has shown its fidelity to this call. Our fidelity is only to Jesus Christ, our Lord. There is no other Lord, neither here in our beloved Homeland, nor outside it, to which we MUST serve and adore.”

“The . . . [CIC] reaffirms its commitment to continue working for the unity of the churches. Serving the people and the nation, seeking together and together the paths of peace, faith and hope, the dignity of the people and the care of Creation, that help us to build and live the signs of the Kingdom of God: equality and love for all and all in the midst of our beloved country.”

Conclusion

For approximately the last 17 years, my Minneapolis church—Westminster Presbyterian Church—has had a partnership with a Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Matanzas, Cuba on the north shore of the island east of Havana, and I have been on three mission trips to Cuba to visit this and other Presbyterian-Reformed churches on the island. In Havana I have visited Ebenezer Baptist Church and its Martin Luther King, Jr. Center and the offices of the CIC as well as the Seminario Evangélico de Teologia in Matanzas. As a result, I have gotten to know pastors and members of these churches and other religious institutions and have had the honor and pleasure to welcome some of them to my church in Minneapolis. On one of my trips, the Westminster group delivered a CD-ROM edition of the Talmud from our friends at Minneapolis’ Temple Israel to a scholar at the main synagogue in Havana, and on another trip we delivered an icon from Minneapolis’ St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church to the new Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Havana. I also have read about religion in Cuba and many of the essays by a Presbyterian-Reformed pastor, Rev. Sergio Arce, as reflected in my blog posts on the subject.

Therefore, I can testify from personal knowledge that despite limited financial and other resources, there is significant religious freedom on the island. In other words, the State Department’s recent report on religious freedom in Cuba paints an erroneous picture.[6]

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[1] State Dep’t, 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: Cuba (June 21, 2019).

[2] State Dep’t, 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom (“Overview and Acknowledgements”) (June 21, 2019).

[3] Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Wikipedia.

[4] World Council of Churches, Cuban Council of Churches; Cuban Council of Churches (Consejo de Iglesias), About us.

[5] Council of Churches of Cuba, United To Serve (July 2019); The official Council of Churches declares its attachment to the new Constitution and defends that there is ‘religious freedom’ in Cuba, Diario de Cuba (July 17, 2019).

[6] See the following posts to dwkcommentaries.com: The Cuban Revolution and Religion (Dec. 30, 2011); U.S. Government’s Opinions on Religious Freedom in Cuba (Jan. 5, 2012); Cuban Religious Freedom According to the U.S. Commission on Assistance to a Free Cuba (Jan. 8, 2012); Cuban Protestant Leader: Cuban Religious Freedom (Apr. 4, 2012); Cuban Religious Freedom According to the Latest U.S. Report on International Religious Freedom (Aug. 3, 2012); Cuban Religious Freedom (U.S. State Department’s Report) (May 25, 2013); Cuban Religious Freedom (U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom) (May 27, 2013); Other Voices on Cuban Religious Freedom (June 19, 2013);  U.S. State Department’s Latest Report on Cuban Human Rights (Mar. 7, 2014); Other Details about Congressional Briefing by Cuban Religious Leaders Mar. 7, 2014); Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Takes Actions Regarding Cuba (June 26, 2014); Cuban Government Meets with Religious Leaders (Nov. 19, 2014); Praise God for Leading U.S. and Cuba to Reconciliation (Dec. 22, 2014); The First Day of Pope Francis’ Mission to the Cuban People (Sept. 21, 2015); The Second Day of Pope Francis’ Mission to the Cuban People (Sept. 22, 2015); The Third Day of Pope Francis’ Mission to the Cuban People (Sept. 25, 2015); The Fourth Day of Pope Francis’ Mission to the Cuban People (Sept. 26, 2015); A Protestant Christian’s Reaction to Pope Francis’ Missions to the Cuban and American People (Oct. 26, 2015); U.S. State Department Statement on Cuban Religious Freedom (July 28, 2016); Cuban Religious Freedom in the Eyes of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (May 28, 2018); Cuban Religious Freedom in the Eyes of the U.S. State Department (May 29, 2018).

 

 

 

 

 

U.S. State Department’s Positive Assessment of Cuban Religious Freedom  

On August 15, 2017, the U.S. State Department released its annual report on religious freedom in nearly 200 countries and territories in the world. This report is a requirement pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended; legislation that upholds religious freedom as a core American value under the Constitution’s First Amendment, as well as a universal human right. This law calls for the government to, quote, “[Stand] for liberty and [stand] with the persecuted, to use and implement appropriate tools in the United States foreign policy apparatus, including diplomatic, political, commercial, charitable, educational, and cultural channels, to promote respect for religious freedom by all governments and peoples.”[1]

The release was accompanied by remarks from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said, “conditions in many parts of the world are far from ideal. Religious persecution and intolerance remains far too prevalent. Almost 80 percent of the global population live with restrictions on or hostilities to limit their freedom of religion. Where religious freedom is not protected, we know that instability, human rights abuses, and violent extremism have a greater opportunity to take root.” He specifically mentioned serious concerns about religious freedom in ISIS, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bahrain, China, Pakistan and Sudan. Subsequently Ambassador Michael Kozak, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, conducted a telephone conference briefing with journalists.[2]

Our focus here is examining the report’s substantially positive assessment of religious freedom in Cuba in 2016.[3] A more negative evaluation of Cuba was provided earlier this year by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an unusual, quasi-governmental group; its report about Cuba  also will be discussed before providing my own observations.

State Department’s Assessment of Cuba[4]

Religious Demography

“The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.2 million (July 2016 estimate). There is no independent, authoritative source on the overall size or composition of religious groups. The Roman Catholic Church estimates 60 to 70 percent of the population identify as Catholic. Membership in Protestant churches is estimated at 5 percent of the population. Pentecostals and Baptists are likely the largest Protestant denominations. The Assemblies of God reports approximately 110,000 members and the Four Baptist Conventions estimate their combined membership at more than 100,000 members. Jehovah’s Witnesses estimate their members at 96,000; Methodists at 36,000; Seventh-day Adventists at 35,000; Anglicans, 22,500; Presbyterians, 15,500; Episcopalians, 6,000; Quakers, 300; and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), 100. The Jewish community estimates it has 1,500 members, of whom 1,200 reside in Havana. According to the Islamic League, there are 2,000 to 3,000 Muslims residing in the country, of whom an estimated 1,500 are Cubans. Other religious groups include Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Buddhists, and Bahais.”

“Many individuals, particularly in the African Cuban community, practice religions with roots in West Africa and the Congo River Basin, known collectively as Santeria. These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism, and some require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate accurately their total membership.”

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government and the Cuban Communist Party monitored religious groups through the Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) in the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and continued to control most aspects of religious life. Observers noted that the government harassed some religious leaders and their followers, with reports of threats, detentions, and violence. Evangelical and other Protestant religious leaders reported the government threatened to expropriate some religious properties under zoning laws passed in 2015 but took no action during the year. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported in a January publication that there was an increase in government threats to close churches from 2014 to 2015. The majority was related to government threats to close churches belonging to Assemblies of God congregations, but the Assemblies of God and the government were able to reach an agreement which enabled the churches to stay open. Religious groups reported a continued increase in the ability of their members to conduct charitable and educational projects, such as operating before and after school and community service programs, assisting with care of the elderly, and maintaining small libraries of religious materials. Multiple high-level leaders from Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious groups agreed the religious freedom environment had improved compared to past years.” (Emphases added.)[5]

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.” (Emphasis added.)

“U.S. embassy officials met with officials from the ORA to discuss the registration process for religious organizations and inquire about the rights of nonregistered groups to practice their religion. Embassy officials also met with the head of the Council of Cuban Churches (CCC), an officially recognized organization that has close ties to the government and comprises most Protestant groups, to discuss their operations and programs. The [U.S.] Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the [U.S.] Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs met with leaders of Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious groups to discuss the religious freedom environment in the country. The embassy remained in close contact with religious groups, including facilitating exchanges between visiting religious delegations and religious groups in the country. In public statements, the U.S. government called upon the government to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the freedom of religion.”

U.S. Commission’s Evaluation of Cuba[6]

On April 26, 2017, the Commission released its 2017 report on religious freedom in 36 countries and one region, in contrast to the nearly 200 countries covered by the State Department. The Commission’s nine unpaid, part-time commissioners are appointed by various federal government officials supported by an ex-officio non-voting member (U.S. Ambassador David Saperstein), an executive director, four directors, an executive writer, five policy analysts, one researcher and four administrative staff, all based in Washington, D.C. It apparently has an annual budget of only $ 3.5 million.[7]

The 36 countries (and one region) evaluated by the Commission fall into the following three groups:

  • The 16 countries that the Commission believes constitute “countries of particular concern” (CPC) or “any country whose government engages in or tolerates particularly egregious religious freedom violations that are systematic, ongoing, and egregious” and that the Commission recommends that the State Department so designate. (Pp. 3-4)
  • The 12 countries that the Commission believes constitute “Tier 2 nations in which the violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are serious and characterized by at least one of the elements of the ‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious’ CPC standard;” Cuba is one of these 12 countries (Pp. 3-4)
  • The 8 other countries and one region that the Commission has monitored, but are not deemed to be CPC or Tier 2. (Pp. 3-4)

For Cuba, the Commission’s “Key Findings” were the following: “During the reporting period, religious freedom conditions in Cuba continued to deteriorate due to the government’s short-term detentions of religious leaders, demolition of churches, and threats to confiscate churches. In addition, the Cuban government harasses religious leaders and laity, interferes in religious groups’ internal affairs, and prevents—at times violently—human rights and pro-democracy activists from participating in religious activities. The Cuban government actively limits, controls, and monitors religious practice through a restrictive system of laws and policies, surveillance, and harassment. Based on these concerns, USCIRF again places Cuba on its Tier 2 in 2017, as it has since 2004.” (P. 134)

Almost all of the specifics that purportedly underlie these Key Findings relate to churches affiliated with the Apostolic Movement;[8] Assemblies of God churches, which the State Department reports had settled its problems with the Cuban government; the Western Baptist Convention; and the detentions of Ladies in White protestors (pp. 136-38). Apparently, the Commission’s discussion of Cuba is based in whole or in part on reports by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which has headquartered in the United Kingdom with offices in Washington, D.C. and Brussels, Belgium and which only obtained U.N. accredited consultative status after eight years by the U.N. Economic and Social Council in April 2017 by a vote of 28-9 with 12 abstentions.

Purportedly based on these Key Findings, the Commission made certain recommendations to the federal government (p. 134).

Conclusion

I believe that the State Department’s assessment on Cuba is more reliable than that from the U.S. Commission, as a mere comparison of their respective reports and as the mere listing of the various religious groups active on the island in the Department’s report should demonstrate.

Moreover, the Department has experienced diplomats in Cuba who met during the year with various Cuban government and religious officials supplemented by visits to Cuba by Washington, D.C. Department officials with responsibility for assessing religious freedom around the world. In contrast, the Commission is a very small organization with limited resources in Washington, D.C. without personnel in Cuba or visits to Cuba and that apparently has focused on a small number of Cuban churches, some of which apparently are affiliated with a little-known church in California and with apparent reliance on a little-known U.K. group that only recently received U.N. accredited consultative status by a divided vote.

The Department’s assessment also is supported by my personal experience.

Over the last 15 years as a member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church I have been actively involved in our partnerships with a small Presbyterian-Reformed Church in the city of Matanzas on the north coast of Cuba and with the national Synod of that church. I have been on three church mission trips to Cuba to visit our partner and other Presbyterian-Reformed churches and its campimento (camp) on the island, the ecumenical seminary in Matanzas (Seminario Evangelico de Teologia), Havana’s office of the Council of Cuban Churches and Havana’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and its affiliated Martin Luther King, Jr. Center and Pastor Rev. Raúl Suárez, who has served in Cuba’s legislature (National Assembly of People’s Power).

I also have welcomed and discussed Cuban religious life with Cuban members and pastors on their visits to Minneapolis, including Rev. Dra. Ofelia Miriam Ortega Suárez, the Directora of Havana’s Instituto Cristiano de Estudios Sobre Gênero and a member of Cuba’s legislature (National Assembly of People’s Power). In addition, I have heard from other Westminster members and pastors about their trips to Cuba. This includes some Westminster members who have been involved in installing clean water systems in Cuban Presbyterian-Reformed churches through the Living Waters for the World Ministry of the Synod of Living Waters of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), our denomination, and a Westminster member is now the Moderator of the Cuba Network Coordinating Team for that organization.[9]  Finally I read widely about Cuba, especially its relations with the U.S. and its religious life.

These connections have been very important to me personally and to others at Westminster as we stand in solidarity with our Cuban brothers and sisters. I also was impressed and moved by Pope Francis’ encouragement of U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation in 2013-2014 and his pastoral visits to Cuba and the U.S. in 2015.[10]

I, therefore, believe that at least in the 21st century there has been an ever-increasing role for, and freedom of, religion in Cuba as this poor country struggles to improve the spiritual and economic welfare of its people. I also believe that Westminster and other U.S. churches’ partnering with Cuban churches and people along with Pope Francis’ witness have been God’s servants aiding, and continuing to aid, these encouraging changes.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Preface: International Religious Freedom Report for 2016 (Aug. 15, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, Overview and Acknowledgement: International Religious Freedom Report for 2016 (Aug. 15, 2017).

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, Secretary Tillerson: Remarks on the 2016 International Religious Freedom Report (Aug. 15, 2017); Special Briefing: Ambassador Michael Kozak, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (Aug. 15, 2017).

[3] Other posts have discussed the State Department’s and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s previous assessments of Cuban religious freedom along with comments by others and the international law regarding freedom of religion; they are listed in the “Cuban Freedom of Religion” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Cuba.

[4] U.S. State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Report for 2016: Cuba (Aug. 15, 2017).

[5] This positive development was emphasized in the body of the Cuba report, which stated, “Religious groups reported their leaders continued to travel abroad to participate in two-way exchanges between local faith-based communities and those in other countries. The majority of religious groups continued to report improvement in their ability to attract new members without government interference, and a reduction in interference from the government in conducting their services.”

[6] U.S. Comm’n Int’l Religious Freedom, 2017 Annual Report (April 26, 2017); Press Release: USCIRF Releases 2017 Annual Report (April 26, 2017).

[7] Grieboski, The Case for Pulling the Plug on the US Commission on  International Religious Freedom, Huffpost (Dec. 18, 2011); Press Release: Rubio Celebrates Signing Of U.S. Commission On International Religious Freedom Reauthorization Act Into Law (Oct. 15, 2015).

[8] The Apostolic Movement apparently is headquartered in San Diego, California as “a Fivefold Ministry organization headed by an Apostolic team of Fivefold Ministers . . .[with] a mandate from God the Father through the Lord Jesus Christ, to go and prepare the Body of Christ for the final move of God . . . [by finding] the Hidden Warriors whom He has hidden away, waiting for the time of their manifestation [based upon the belief that] God has reserved for Himself apostles, both men and women, who are not currently visible or part of the Status Quo Church System.”

[9] A brief discussion of these Westminster connections with Cuba occurs in this blog post: Praise God for Leading U.S. and Cuba to Reconciliation (Dec. 22, 2014).

[10] See the blog posts listed in the “Pope Francis Visits to Cuba & U.S., 2015” in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.